Sunday, 24th September 2023

Local government autonomy: Matters arising

By Editorial Board
12 February 2023   |   4:17 am
By voting against the bill seeking to grant financial and administrative autonomy to local governments, as they did in the run-up to the review of the 1999 Constitution as amended, states’ Houses of Assembly have sent a clear signal about the direction of the true federalism required by the country.
Nigeria Senate

National Assembly. Photo/facebook/TopeBrown/NigerianSenate

By voting against the bill seeking to grant financial and administrative autonomy to local governments, as they did in the run-up to the review of the 1999 Constitution as amended, states’ Houses of Assembly have sent a clear signal about the direction of the true federalism required by the country. While it is true that the constitution firmly envisions a system of local government, particularly to entrench government and governance at the grassroots, there is little doubt that the political class is yet to reach a consensus on the status of local governments across the country.

Some months ago, the National Assembly began a constitutional review process under the chairmanship of Senator Omo-Agege. This is against the backdrop of two major attempts to reform the constitution in 2004 and 2014 by both the Obasanjo and Jonathan administration. One was stalemated and the other held and its outcome more or less dumped in the bin, in other words, gathering dust in the inner recesses of Aso Rock.

Nevertheless, a number of bills were engrossed as amendments to the constitution, about 44 in all. Importantly, 35 bills have been approved by state assemblies that include financial autonomy of state legislatures and state judiciary; power devolution to allow state governments to build and operate airports, prisons, railways, and power grid systems. Others include legislative power to summon president and governors; timeframe to submit ministerial and commissioner nominees; timeframe for submission of the national budget; and separation of the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and the state from the minister or commissioner for justice.

One of the major exceptions is the bill seeking to grant financial and administrative autonomy to local governments that were voted against by the State Houses of Assembly. The bill sought to abrogate the state-local government joint account; establishment of local government as a tier of government; institutionalisation of legislative bureaucracy in the constitution.

Constitutionally, a simple majority of votes is required in at least two-thirds of state assemblies (24 out of 36) for the amendments to sail through, and subsequently to be assented to by the president. However, accusing fingers have been pointed at the governors for preventing state lawmakers from concurring with constitutional amendment proposals. The governors, it is alleged, have “have worked tirelessly to turn the Conference of Speakers and some states’ assemblies into political puppets, thereby undermining and delegitimising the legislative institution at the state level.”

It is to be noted that the local autonomy issue has been a subject of controversy. The crux of the matter is federalism. The country’s grundnorm declares Nigeria as a federation. We have stuck to the classical line of KC Wheare that federalism is a constitutional arrangement between a central authority and the component units which though disparate, are equal and coordinated. Federalism is contractual and apposite for multinational entities. It is the people, experts have argued, that are the contractual parties to a federal constitutional arraignment, so components parts cannot simultaneously be converted into a third tier to perhaps evolve a Nigeria exceptionalism. The latent function on the part of the local government autonomy is to legitimise the arbitrarily created 774 local governments that have been a drain on the national coffers. The open argument is that local government autonomy and functionality have been undermined by state governors who behave like emperors in their respective states and utilize local governments’ allocation which goes into the state-local government joint account. The National Financial Intelligence Unit is used as a rationale for the so-called autonomy.

The NFIU was inspired by the international financial institutions to track capital flow and prevent funds into terrorist cells in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States. The council of Europe for example provide a justification for the setting up of National Financial Units. As it puts it, the “global efforts to establish an effective framework for the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing required a new approach, enabling a connection between the private sector (in particular the financial market) with the structures enforcing criminal legislation. As a result of these considerations, countries adopted initiatives to establish a new type of state authority: the financial intelligence unit (FIU).” Nigerian government took a cue from this and set up the NFIU as “an autonomous unit, domiciled within the Central Bank of Nigeria and the central coordinating body for the country’s Anti-Money Laundering, Counter-Terrorist Financing and Counter-Proliferation Financing (AML/CFT/CPF) framework”. To employ this instrument meant for a different purpose to justify local government autonomy is disingenuous.

On the part of the governors, local government autonomy represses their access to financial largesse, when the arguments ought to be that, within a federal arrangement it is the duty of the federating state to create local governments as desirable for local governance. This latter argument is worth espousing. The task of local government creation is the responsibility of federating states and their legislatures to handle. This is not the same thing as the reification of local government into a tier of the Nigerian federation.

It is obvious that the lawmakers at both the national and the state levels are making a case for local government autonomy for the wrong reasons while missing the big picture which is federalism. Federalism in our national context must be a two-tier federation, not a three-tier entity that is geared toward eroding the federal essentiality of the Nigerian state.

All said the Clerk of the National Assembly should take all the necessary measures to transmit the 35 approved bills to President Muhammadu Buhari for assent. Also, we urge states, such as Gombe, Jigawa, Kebbi, Kwara, Oyo, Plateau, Sokoto, Taraba, and Zamfara that are yet to forward their resolution to the National Assembly should do so.